January 16, 2020 | Casey Fletcher

Therapists Share The Life Lessons Their Clients Have Taught Them

Anyone who goes to therapy hopes to learn a thing or two from their therapist; how to cope with painful emotions, how to set boundaries, techniques to categorize their problems, learning how to recharge, recognizing their triggers—the list could go on. But clinicians can actually learn a lot from their clients, too. These therapists share the lessons they've learned over the years and how they've affected their own approach to work and life.

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#1 Just the Next 30 Minutes

Just today someone said to me, “I tell myself all the time, 'If I can stay sober for the next 30 minutes I’m going to make it.' Sometimes I have to tell myself that more than once, but I make it every time." It really got to me today, that little saying has so much meaning behind it for so many things. It put in perspective for me that dealing with certain issues is a minute by minute thing, but I can make it no matter what.


#2 Constant Desire for Knowledge

I work with college students (freshman all the way through final years of PhD programs, med school, etc.) I’m amazed by their constant desire for knowledge.There is an information lust in all of them. It makes me more passionate about my field and I go to trainings and conferences thrilled to learn thanks to them. It’s incredible. The difference in my mental state from working outpatient to working exclusively with the student population is amazing. They’ve saved my career.

Student_in_Class_(3618969705)Wikimedia Commons

#3 We Continue to Find Meaning

In general, humans can experience an incredible amount of trauma, loss, overall suffering and not only continue to exist, but continue to find meaning and even contentment in their lives. It's helped me to re-frame my own trauma in a more helpful way and also made me less fearful of what my future may hold, recognizing that we can tolerate much, much more than we think we can.

#4 Expanding Social Media Knowledge

My teenage clients are how I learned about Reddit!

#5 Thinking Outside

So, I use acceptance and commitment therapy as my approach. It is an approach that I use in my life so I will use examples of how I use it to help guide clients. I was giving an example of getting caught up in thoughts while on a walk on the weekend. Specifically, thoughts about how this very client was doing because she and I had practiced a very difficult script for her to set some boundaries. I was getting swept away and wasn't present on my walk, so I dropped anchor and got in the present.

That client said that knowing that I think about her and her wellbeing outside of the session made her feel so special and cared for. I took it for granted that clients knew we think about them. Half of my case planning comes from walking thoughts or driving thoughts. It changed how I practice. I make sure to share, in appropriate ways, how often I do think about my client's wellbeing outside of session.


#6 Don't Impose

Speech therapist so not a psych, but I did learn sometimes the things that worry you as a therapist, don't worry the client, and if they're not worried you shouldn't be worried because you're there to help them, not impose on them.

#7 The Weather Man Isn't Always Right

I used to work with kids with mental health problems. The thing that stuck with me the most was what a teenager with autism once said to me: "Sometimes, I feel really bad because the weatherman on TV tells me it'll rain tomorrow, and most of the time he's right, but sometimes, he's wrong and it's sunny. I guess it must be the same for mom and the doctor." It changed a lot in the way I've lived my life


#8 Feelings in Doses

"All feelings can be good or bad in the right doses. Fear in small doses can get you out of your safe zone. Love in big doses can make you lose yourself."

#9 Quest Objectives

Something I inadvertently taught my therapist is when I'm really struggling to start my day, I divide it up into "quest objectives" ala video games. For example, "Shower, breakfast and dress," "Get to work on time," "Complete at least three briefs today," and so on and so forth. It really helps me set short term goals for getting through the day. She told me she has subsequently used this method with other clients and it's worked well.


#10 The Power of Creativity

I’m a former mental health social worker, and though I have learned much from my clients, I value the perspective of someone with schizophrenia most. They understand the fragility of reality, the defining attributes of perspective, and the power of creativity.

#11 We're Resillient

Without exception, I learn from every single one of my clients. I’ve learned that 12-year-olds can think and talk with the wisdom of an 80-year-old and you can be in your 60s and have lived with stunting trauma for decades. I’ve learned that life can beat someone every which way and give them the worst deck of cards and they still find things that make them smile.


#12 A Playful Wink

This week I had a client in a group tell me that a way she began to improve her self-esteem is to playfully wink at herself in the mirror every morning. Simple, yet effective, I guess.

#13 He's Fighting Himself

A foster parent recently said, “He’s in the ring fighting, and the opponent is himself. And all the people supporting him don’t even see what he’s battling against. He’s his own worst enemy.” It hit me in the feels because I do the same dang thing. I want to make it slightly more poetic and make it into a wall hanging/poster of some kind.


#14 Speaking from the Heart

My folks with schizophrenia have taught me the power of truthful, compassionate response—speaking from the heart. Even if a person is psychotic, they know bullshit when they hear it, and they know if you don't care.

#15 Just Listen

Teenage client that nine therapists had attended with nothing except things thrown at them. They sent me down because I was new and I just listened. I spent thirty minutes with them. In the end, they told me never to quit my job. I have lived with my own experience of mental health issues and my self-esteem is often not great, add in the imposter syndrome every therapist tends to get, and my confidence isn't always the best. That client taught me I am in the right career. I will be forever grateful for them.


#16 We All Have Hope

I've learned an extensive amount about what makes people want to stop living along with what keeps people going. It's fascinating to know the depths of pain and yet to see them still have a glimmer of hope that things will be different. My clients always inspire hope in me.

#17 Gender Dysphoria is Real

That gender dysphoria is incredibly debilitating. I have always thought it was just being confused and unsure about your body and that it was mild, but I was way wrong. I had a biological teenage girl (but goes by he, him, his) crying in front of me last night and was very suicidal. We were on the topic of how he doesn't do morning or evening hygiene and he said something along the line of, "You don't know what it's like to look down at your body and see female parts when your whole heart and soul knows you're a boy. I'm just as sure that I'm a boy as you're just as sure you're a girl. And that's that." It shook my whole perspective on gender dysphoria. This kid even has trouble wiping after going to the bathroom for the same reason... it hurts to see him like this.

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#18 Seeking Help is Not Weak

I do targeted case management. The most profound thing said to me was “I’m just trying to deal with the stuff that gets me stuck.” Which made me realize everyone has stuff that gets them stuck and that seeking help for that is not a sign of weakness.


#19 Learn Always

I have learned a lot from my patients, both unrelated to the therapy and also about it. I pretty much always try to tell my patients what they taught me in the moment, and if it’s a therapeutically relevant thing, ask if I can tell others (with the credit of “another patient of mine taught me a thing that might be helpful for you”). But learning something in general (not unknowingly) happens a lot.


#20 We All Inspire

I had a 17-year-old tell me that he wanted to be a therapist. Until then, I thought he was barely even listening to me. It just took a while to click. He's a great kid, and it made me feel like my work was worthwhile.

#21 We Desire Connection

By far, the number one thing I’ve learned that clients across demographics including religion, nationality, s.e.s., age and gender desire is connection, which usually boils down to being seen, heard, validated and understood. It is a universal need and/or want to feel connected (yes, even you, self-proclaimed ultra introvert who never needed nobody).


#22 Learn to Be Comfortable

Well, this is something that my therapist says he's going to use that I once said, "I have to learn how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable."


#23 Don't Be Lazy

I’m a mental health therapist in a high school. One of my clients has CP and has almost no mobility. She taught me to stop treating doing things for myself as a chore (making a meal, exercise, housework etc) because I’m lucky that my body allows me to take care of myself.

#24 Seeking Help is a Sign of Strength

Wasn't a client, but someone coming to see them with us. "Don't feel guilty about calling for help and ending up here. I would rather see you here every week asking for help and fighting than to know you stopped fighting and those thoughts won."

#25 Therapists Change Lives

About six years ago, I was sick with my autoimmune disorder, about 100lbs overweight and medications weren't working I was the only therapist for my work site as they couldn't fill positions. I burned out. I ended up on stress leave for six weeks. I returned to work kind of questioning how can I be a good therapist if I burned out.

I returned to a handwritten letter from a client from the year previous. She wrote a thank you letter that told me how she had continued to use the skills we worked on, how she had changed her life, and the impact I made in her. Literally, this woman's letter saved my career. I truly love my work and I keep way better work-life balance now that I am more adept a living with a chronic illness! Also, I am 95lbs lighter now too. I got healthy.


#26 How to Let Go

How to let go, over and over again, of people I care about. So many years of intensely relating, and giving, and letting go. I treasure the gift of being in the place to learn that lesson. It has helped me be a better friend and family member to not hold on so tight.

#27 1+1=2

When talking about two people being in a relationship, a child I was working with described it as "one plus one equals two." It really changed my perspective of "my other half" or looking at two people in a relationship as a whole. I now use two distinct wholes (one person), who choose to come together as two.

#28 Waste Management

About the waste management services of New Jersey.

#29 We All Have Alone Time

A patient (10 years old) stole her divorced mother cellphone to call me and asked who I was having dinner with (I was alone) and i don't know why, but I replied that I was with my family and he said, ''I'm having dinner alone but it's okay." I asked him if I could help him with something and he said he was making dinner and wanted to talk with someone, we chatted about our next round of' Uno for 2 minutes and then he said he needed to go. I've never felt alone since.


#30 New Hobbies

So many things it isn't even funny. I get to learn about professions and hobbies that I have zero knowledge about or desire to do, but I like knowing.


#31 Everyone Suffers

That everyone suffers in some way or another. The circumstances leading up to the suffering are different but the underlying emotional pain is the same. You can’t compare circumstances with others and this comparison often leads to more misery. But you can connect with people by sitting with their suffering.


#32 A Day Without Laughter is a Day Wasted

I was the patient but during an early session I mentioned the Chaplin quote, “A day without laughter is a day wasted.” And my therapist had never heard that before and said they were going to use that. I saw it as a quote hanging on their wall soon thereafter.

#33 Weight Isn't Everything

It’s bittersweet. I had child patient that thought that she was overweight. I explained to her that her weight includes her muscle and organs and bones. I taught her that muscle is much denser than fat. I told her a fun fact that her head weighs eight pounds. She thought she was all fat. Her face lit up. I was sad that she was so concerned with her worth in terms of weight (insert feminist rant here) but that I got to teach her. I love that part of my job includes teaching people like this.

#34 He Has the Rhythm

After being called an idiot, a guy at AA said, "Hey fella, just because I don't know the steps to your dance, doesn't mean I don't got rhythm."

#35 We Are All Determined and Resilient

Human beings are shockingly determined and resilient, even if it's not in the direction you'd expect. No one wakes up and decides to do something terrible. People are terrible by design. Someone taught them this behavior is ok somehow, & sometimes it was through pain. Find that core, & you can find empathy for almost anyone. If you can feel empathy for someone, then you might just be able to speak with & connect with them.

#36 Bad Finger

I had a six-year-old client hold up his pointer finger on one hand and his middle finger on the other, look quizzically at both of them, and then hold up his pointer finger. He solemnly stated that this finger was okay. Then he held up his middle finger and said, "This is a bad one." I honestly didn't know what to say to that. I mean he was totally right in the sense that pointing one if those fingers gets a huge reaction. It was one hell of a moment holding the space and realizing I had absolutely nothing to say to that.


#37 The Line is Thin

I’m a therapist in a psychiatric hospital and my patients have taught me how thin the line is between being mentally healthy and ill. Many of my patients were healthy and high functioning until one event happened to them. That could be anyone. We are all just one incident away from being permanently ill. I am grateful and humbled by the tenacity of my patients, and for each day I am healthy.

#38 Let it Go

That you can't solve every problem.

#39 Perseverance Through Mistakes

I’m a therapist for children with autism. These kids go to school and then therapy five days a week, adding up to 10 hours a day, more than some working adults. They work hard to increase their skill sets. I have struggled with severe anxiety and still struggle with it sometimes. While I’m teaching them life skills, they teach me perseverance through tough days and to smile and keep going even through the mistakes. These kids never fail to amaze me and I’m so proud to say I work with them.

#40 Research

I work with a lot of grad students, which means I learn a LOT about various research projects in areas from archeology to vet med to communications. As a researcher myself, I always enjoy learning more about other areas.

#41 Using Humor

Obligatory not a therapist, but a patient who'd like to think that I teach her things. I often express my issues through humor. For humor, I tend to use a lot of "made up" words or "meme lingo" which she doesn't really understand. I teach her all sorts of things and what they mean. However, she has a very thick Hispanic accent (we live in the U.S.) and can't really pronounce some words well, which makes it even better for me.

We did a project one time where she had me or a friend draw turtles on my arm when I felt like self-harming (because turtles are my favorite animal). But she pronounces it "tortle" and I'll never correct her on it. Anyway, she once told me to "yeet my negative emotions." I love her, and I hope that she really is learning some stuff from me.

#42 We Are Resilient and Optimistic

The biggest thing I take away from all of my sessions is how amazingly resilient and optimistic people inherently are. When we push through all the negative thoughts and faulty beliefs that keep us stuck, our core is hope and promise for the future. Small children are the best examples of this. They have experienced horrific traumas and come out on the other side well adjusted and having learned to develop healthy attachments. I’m amazed every day by my clients.

#43 Meditation Works

I had a client who was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. He is 15 and refused to take medication for it. His grandmother came to stay with him from India and together they began meditating. My first session with him was two weeks after his grandmother came. He was in such a bad place. He wasn't eating and was having panic attacks.

He was adamant about not taking medicine despite his bad state. I helped him a little through cognitive behavioral therapy, but it was the meditation that was helping him. Over the next six weeks that I worked with him, it was amazing to see this young man come back to life. He started to show interest in doing things again and you could see the life return to his eyes. At the last few sessions he was laughing and his mother was saying that she has not seen that side of in over a year. I have heard about meditation helping people with depression and anxiety, but I was a skeptic. This client showed me just how powerful meditation is.


#44 All the Time in the World

I was with a patient who said, “I’m your most important patient...because you’re with me right now.” I’ve taken that with me. No matter how busy I am, I try to focus on that one patient like I have all the time in the world.

#45 A Genuine Compliment Helps a Negative Attitude

One day, I was feeling very bad at work because of something that happened outside of work. I was walking around the dining room getting dishes to wash when an old woman (a regular) saw the look on my face and told me that I looked “very nice today.” She gave me a genuine compliment in an attempt to cheer me up.

I learned that customers can most definitely pick up on how you’re feeling, even when you don’t make it evident. Especially if it’s a negative feeling. You should always leave your baggage at the door, and enjoy your day at work. I am so thankful she was compassionate enough to try to cheer me up, instead of commenting on how I didn’t look happy, or wasn’t working fast enough, or complained to the owner. I definitely learned a good lesson that day!



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